The Trials of Minnie Dean (2018)

Jack Ross, ed.: Poetry NZ Yearbook 2018 (March 2018)

Books and Magazines in brief:

Karen Zelas. The Trials of Minnie Dean: A Verse Biography. ISBN 978-0-9941299-9-4. Submarine. Wellington: Mākaro Press, 2017. RRP $25. 196 pp.

Karen Zelas: The Trials of Minnie Dean (2017)

This is a very strange book indeed. Even its author refers to it, in her acknowledgements, as a ‘rather idiosyncratic work,’ and is careful to admit her indebtedness to Lynley Hood’s ‘excellent biography’ Minnie Dean: Her Life & Crimes.

But surely Zelas must be mistaken when she refers to a 1985 review she wrote of Hood’s book? 1985 was indeed the date of Ken Catran’s book (and TV series) Hanlon: A Casebook, on Alf Hanlon, Minnie Dean’s Defence Counsel, but Hood’s biography did not appear – to considerable acclaim (as well as controversy) – until 1994.

Both Catran and Hood are sympathetic to Dean (though they fill in the more debatable details of her background very differently). So, too, is Zelas.

But is a verse biography the best medium for assessing the case for and against the only woman ever to be hanged in New Zealand? It’s hard to say, really. Certainly a close reading of Hood’s biography is excellent preparation for seeing precisely what Zelas has done with the story.

I’m not sure that the same could be said to apply in reverse, but it’s certainly true that the story maintains its fascination and allure in this new form, and – after all – 1994 is (now) a long time ago.

Was Dean guilty of anything meriting the punishment she received? The concensus from Catran, Hood, and now Zelas would seem to be ‘no’. Many people in Southland, and elsewhere, remain unconvinced to this day, however.

On the principle of extending the benefit of the doubt and judging not lest one be judged, it would be hard not to congratulate Zelas on opening up this awkwardly revealing case once more. After all, it could hardly be more relevant to a country with so shocking a record of abusing and terrorising its young. Conspiracies of silence and unexamined evidence seem to be the best way of guaranteeing the continuation of all that. Zelas, to her great credit, has decided to face the issue head on.<


Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2018. ISBN 978-0-9941473-3-2 (March 2018): 336.

[352 wds]

Poetry NZ Yearbook 2018

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